The First Honor Killing
The story of Cain and Abel is often described as the first murder. I would argue that it is more precisely the first honor killing. An honor killing occurs when someone loses face or is shamed by another person. The shamed person then lashes out and kills the person responsible for the shaming. Cain kills Abel because he comes in second, while he as the first born, thinks he should be first in all things. God should prefer his offering to Abel's. It is the natural order of things in his eyes. Because Abel is elevated, Cain thinks it means that he is diminished. Removing the person next in line moves you up according to this sinful logic. In the recent attack of a Maryland newspaper office the first press accounts report that the accused had a problem with a news story about him. If this is correct, then this will be basically an honor killing.
Defending perceived violations of honor can lead to all types of evil, from bullies in the school yard to domestic abusers, the words of Cain are oft repeated again and again. The victim of violence is discounted, "I'm not my brothers keeper" (biblical slang for "not my problem"), or even blamed, "She had it coming." In a recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell a social scientist reported on the data from the spate of "Stand your Ground" laws around the country. The most affected demographic by the law has been white men. The scientist reported bar fights and neighborhood squabbles were turning violent as participants stood their ground, grabbed their weapon and sought to protect their honor.
The story of Cain and Abel and the fact that it comes so early in the narrative, right after creation, tells us that we have a dark part of our nature born of weakness. We can seat our self-worth and being in others deferring to us. God was supposed to defer to Cain, as was Abel, so Cain in a fit of rage would try to end his perceived shame in a fit of violence and murder. But much to Cain's chagrin, his shame would only intensify. One can not heal inner weakness by attacking another more fortunate person. His pitiful weakness is only intensified by his barbaric actions. The story of Cain and Abel reminds us to be on guard against the weakness and shame that can destroy us. Sin is not only lurking at the door for Cain, it lurks for us.
Finding Our True Honor
This is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ matters. The core witness of the New Testament teaches us to find our honor not in the deference of others to ourselves, but by the fact we are loved by God. The gospel proclaims that our personal honor is to seated in the fact that Christ is crucified, died and risen for us. The identity politics of our day is putting all or nothing bets on whether or not the rest of the world will accept us, defer to us and celebrate us. But what happens when your tribe loses that bet?
Does my dignity really rest on others praising me? If our society answers yes to this, then we are nothing but barbarians, the offspring of Cain's cowardice. If my honor rests in God's grace, then I am free to treat my neighbor with dignity. The latter is demonstrated to be true in how God treats Cain when God confronts him with his crime. God treats Cain with dignity. First, God respects Cain enough to speak the truth to him. God explains his crimes and the need for justice. Second, God makes Cain pay a consequence for his crime by removing him from the land, which affirms Cain's agency and therefore his dignity. Third and most importantly, God protects Cain from the vengence of others with no stake in the incident. Genesis 4:15-16 (NRSV) And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.
Of course, God is God, secure in his honor, one who does not require the praise of men or women. God is free to do what is right. So we are able to see what might be the way to go forward when we are living in conflicted times. We are to first be grounded in our dignity as children of God which has been given to us as a gift. We are to remember that though the world will not always accept, love and celebrate us we have a God who does.
Knowledge is power, and perhaps with this knowledge we can keep the Cain within us at bay. For while few of us will kill for a perceived slight of our honor, most if not all of us, have hurt someone for it. Whether yelling at our kids unjustly, or making fun of someone who holds differing views than we do, the sin of Cain can be manifest in us in all kinds of ways. We live in a changing world where the culture tells that honor and acceptance are supposed to be found in just about everything but God. If we do this we are building spiritual houses of straw built on sand. If we stand in Christ and let him be our honor, our fortress will be impregnable and we will be able to honor and uphold the dignity of all God's children.